Earlier this week, The Age newspaper published an article that was really a thinly disguised publicity piece promoting a book written by one Catherine Deveny. Ms Deveny, described in the article as a “broadcaster, comedian, and writer”, writes a weekly column for The Age, and the blurb accompanying the article asserted that she is “controversial and taboo-breaking”. However, a more straight-forward assessment would be that Ms Deveny is print journalism’s equivalent of a radio shock jock: it’s her job to be provocative and controversial, but only in the negative sense of resorting to mean name-calling and brutal sarcasm in order to convey her opinions.
One of Ms Deveny’s regular targets is religion. If you believed her polemics on the subject, religion is a fraud when it is not actually an evil influence; people of faith are either gullible fools or deliberately living a lie; and a world without religion of any sort would be a world devoid of irrationality and all the horror, stupidity, and cruelty that are its fruits.
Deveny’s attitude to religion was neatly summed up in the article by a paragraph describing her conversion to atheism two years ago. It reads thus:
(Her) conversion to atheism…was not the result of prolonged spiritual searching. Rather, it happened when she tried to explain Bible stories to her children. “I sat there going ‘Yeah, so there was this woman called Mary and she got pregnant, but she was a virgin and some angels came down and said that her baby was the Son of God and…hang on, guys. That sounds like a (load of crap)'”.
Actually, she used a much stronger phrase than “load of crap”, but you get the idea. But what is interesting and informative is that Ms Deveny’s hostility to religion is essentially based on her inability to explain Bible stories to her children. Having decided that the Bible stories she couldn’t explain were a load of crap – because of course her inability to explain the stories was emblematic of their essential crappiness, not of any deficiency of understanding on her part – she has seemingly come to the judgement that the Bible as a whole is crap, that Christianity is also crap, and that by extension, all religions (and, presumably, their accompanying sacred texts) are likewise crap.
Now that’s what I call informed opinion! But sarcasm aside, it is not my purpose today to rail against Ms Deveny, or to bemoan the apparent ascendancy of the populist, militant atheism which she espouses. On the contrary, I would like to suggest to you that, in one respect at least, Ms Deveny is right: the story of Mary is absurd, and those of us who see in this story not only confirmation of the existence of God, but confirmation, too, that all creation exists in a deep and abiding relationship with God, are being every bit as absurd as Ms Deveny thinks we are.
But this is the thing which the likes of Ms Deveny have never understood: Christianity has always been accused of absurdity, of irrationality, of foolishness. The early Christians – and here’s an irony! – were even accused of being atheists, precisely because their understanding of God departed so radically from the established cultural concept of God, that it was actually condemned as a kind of denial of God. To hold such a position was deemed to be absurd – and the absurdity of our faith today is that we dare stand over against the prevailing cultural norm, a norm that has the universe mapped out and pinned down to the nth degree: a norm that has no place for mystery, no place for what cannot be objectively proved, no place for God. And yet we have the gall to insist that God not only exists, but that God is a living reality, present in the world and present in our lives.
It’s absurd, it’s illogical, it’s foolishness. It is, in Ms Deveny’s terms, a load of crap.
Except – except what no-one can explain – much less deny – is that come Christmas Day, churches all over the world will be much fuller than they are on any other day of the year except, perhaps, Easter. And what no-one can explain is that, for most of these once or twice a year church attendees, their presence in church on Christmas Day will not be a matter of cheap sentimentality or empty ritual. On the contrary, they will feel compelled to be here – the day itself will somehow seem empty, possibly even pointless, unless they come to church.
Why should that be? The militant atheists and hardcore rationalists will try and explain away this phenomenon by arguing that it’s a matter of cultural habit, or a residual sense of obligation left over from childhood indoctrination. But what I suspect – and I suspect this is also the little worm of doubt that nags away at the back of the militant atheists’ minds, and which makes them so defensive and prickly – is that what brings people to church on Christmas Day is a sense that the story of Christmas is so absurd, so foolish, so contrary to our daily experience that it might actually be true! In other words, I think there’s a sense that the absurdity of the Christmas narrative points to a deeper truth, a truth that can only be conveyed through story and metaphor and image, the wholly inadequate tools of human expression. And I think the people who come to church on Christmas Day get that; they sense the presence and power of the mystery, and if for only one day of the year, they sense that mystery drawing close to the daily reality of their lives.
But this only raises the next question: why should this absurd story of Mary and angels and announcements about impossible births touch us so deeply, why should it persuade us that there might not only be a God, but that God loves us and desires relationship with us?
We get an inkling of why in the Genesis reading. Sarah and Abraham have lived their whole lives on the basis of hope – hope in a promise that if they left behind everything that was known and familiar to them, they would come to a land which God would show them and on which their descendents would become a great nation. By the standards of strict reason an absurd hope, a delusional, foolish hope without any grounding in reality. And the proof appears to be in the fact that eventually Abraham and Sarah get to the point where they are no longer able to have children, the children upon whom the hope for land and nationhood depend – so much for promises, so much for God.
The unfulfilled longing for children is one that strikes at the core of many lives, and so the story of Abraham and Sarah is one that touches the deepest chords of human experience. They had placed their hope and trust in a promise and had seemingly come off second best – and that’s a prospect that is deeply disturbing, because the story of Sarah and Abraham is also the story of human mortality. Human beings long for children, not just for the joy of bringing life into the world, not just for the privilege of helping that life grow to maturity, but because we see in our children a kind of biological immortality. We look at our children and say: There is a piece of me that will continue after I am no more. Sarah and Abraham were not only facing the prospect of an unfulfilled promise, they were confronted by the possibility ultimate extinction, that there would be none to come after them in whom they would continue.
And yet the promise continues to be made, even when they doubt, even when they are so openly sceptical as to laugh at the prospect – the promise continues to be made. Because this story is not just about children or inheritance or human mortality – it is about the faithfulness of God, the absurd, irrational faithfulness that declares that although the whole universe will ultimately pass into death, that death is not the end of the story – that death is the just the necessary precursor to the life that does not end.
And so we come to Mary, and to another absurd promise, another promise of seemingly impossible life. Unlike Sarah, whose dead womb is to be the origin of life, Mary’s womb is an unfulfilled potential, a womb that is capable of bearing life – but which is not meant to bear life, not until Mary is married and the bearing of life becomes culturally and socially permissible. In a way, God’s promise to Mary is even more outlandish than God’s promise to Sarah: because the promise to Mary involves not just a biological surprise, it involves the defiance of human custom and convention. And that’s a defiance that could have gotten Mary killed: the prospect of an unmarried mother in Mary’s time and place could – and did – result in a social outrage that frequently ended in women being stoned to death. To have defied this convention was to court disaster.
And yet this is exactly what Luke has both God and Mary doing. God is making another impossible promise: birth from a virgin womb with no adverse social consequences for the mother. And Mary is making an equally impossible commitment: trusting in the promise that not only would she remain unharmed, but that he son would also be the Son of God.
And it is the fact that Mary – unmarried, virginal, pregnant – is to be the mother of the Son of God that defeats every attempt to play down the scandal, to cover over the absurdity, to explain away the foolishness. Here is God’s faithfulness in all its splendid, irrational subversiveness, overturning human convention, making a mockery of our demand that events conform to our expectations. You can almost sense God’s gentle humour, laughing at our confusion and issuing a challenge: OK you humans, with your logic and reason and intellect – make sense of this! This is the God who challenged Jacob to a wrestling match and left him with a dislocated hip; this is the God who showed Job the universe and asked him to explain its meaning; this is the God who made the greatest persecutor of the early church its greatest defender. This is the God who made an unmarried woman – someone whom we’d probably write off today as trailer trash and suspect of being a welfare cheat – the mother of Christ; this is the God whose Son suffered the most appalling death imaginable simply because God’s unmerited, self-giving love desired our salvation.
Can we make any sense of this? Can we rescue our faith from its absurdity, from its foolish insistence on acting contrary to the demands of our society and the inclinations of our humanity? Of course we can’t, and neither should we. The scandal of Christianity is the same scandal that provokes the wrath of Catherine Deveny and her supporters: the scandal that says, despite all appearances to the contrary, we should dare to hope, we should dare to place our trust in the promises of a God whom we can’t prove exists, but whom we remain convinced loves us and desires relationship with us. Far from being the retreat of the frightened and the wishful thinking, faith is instead a brave, terrifying, foolish risk: the risk articulated by Paul when he declared that either Christ rose from the dead or our faith is in vain; the risk articulated by C S Lewis who recognised that either Jesus is indeed the Son of God or an irredeemable madman.
Of course, Catherine Deveny and others of her ilk would not find any of this convincing; indeed, to their mind, it would be further evidence of our stubborn stupidity. But far from being the basis of despair or self-righteous condemnation, this attitude ought instead to remind us of the reason, and the urgent necessity, for our foolishness: for just as God loves us, despite the frequency with which we turn away from God, so we must continue to love the world, even when it declares us to be irrelevant and disposable. God’s foolish faithfulness must be ours as well.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.